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Doctor in tobacco ads faced bankruptcies; house now being foreclosed

Doctor in tobacco ads faced bankruptcies; house now being foreclosed

By Steven Harmon

Bay Area News Group

Posted:   05/04/2012 04:07:51 PM PDT

May 5, 2012 9:21 PM GMTUpdated:   05/05/2012 02:21:00 PM PDT

Dr. La Donna Porter as she appears in a political television ad, urging… ( Courtesy of No On 29 )«1»WILTON — She’s the family physician in the doctor’s smock turning up in California’s living rooms on TV spots, declaring the tobacco tax measure on the June ballot a menace.

But now Dr. La Donna Porter is coming under fire from tobacco-control groups and other doctors who are convinced the tobacco doctor — a registered Republican who once campaigned on behalf of a toxic chemical — is in it for the money and is being paid by tobacco companies. Public records show that she’s struggling to save her home from foreclosure and lift herself financially from two personal bankruptcies.

But in an exclusive interview with this newspaper, Porter’s husband defiantly defended her, denying that his wife has been paid for her work against Proposition 29.

“We don’t know anybody in the tobacco industry,” said John Porter from the couple’s home in Wilton, 25 miles from Sacramento. “They haven’t offered any money. And I’ve been with her every step of the way.”

Porter said he was “disgusted” with what he calls a “character assassination” against his wife.

“She’s a woman who has a great heart for the people she serves,” he said. The criticism “has been hurtful. My wife is the most humble, most loyal person. … It’s sickening.”

La Donna Porter filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1998 and again in 2008, the latter action coming when her personal debts grew to $2.4 million while she was unemployed for nine months.

Her home is scheduled to be auctioned May 23, according to a foreclosure auction site, but John Porter disputed that. He said he could not comment because of pending litigation.

“We’re not exempt from personal problems,” he said. “We’re fighting through it. We’re doing fine. The house is not being foreclosed — there’s been misinformation about that.”

La Donna Porter, 46, in a statement provided to this paper, said she stood by her views in the ad and insisted she has not been paid by tobacco interests.

“As for the personal questions you raised, I do not see how they are relevant to my opposition to Prop. 29 or my involvement as an unpaid volunteer with No on 29,” she said.

In the TV and radio ads, Porter argues Proposition 29, which would boost California’s tobacco tax by $1 a pack, would create “a huge new research bureaucracy with no accountability run by political appointees who can spend our tax dollars out of state.”

Porter’s appearance in the ads sparked a protest at the 196-bed San Joaquin General Hospital near Stockton, where she has worked for two years. The protest was organized by Carol McGruder, the co-leader of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, who has demanded that Porter divulge how much she has been paid by Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds. The tobacco giants have thrown $20 million into the campaign with a month to go before the June 5 election.

The No on 29 campaign on Friday released a letter insisting that Porter is a volunteer for the campaign and has never been paid.

Tobacco companies have a history of cultivating relationships with leaders in African-American communities, such as Porter, to ensure a foothold in a profitable segment of the market, said Valerie Yerger, a medical researcher at UC San Francisco who has published papers on the subject.

“Dr. Porter is doing a lot of harm because she’s taking advantage of the fact that she’s a doctor to promote the interests of the industry that’s providing a product that’s the primary killer in (the black) community,” Yerger said.

Porter’s ties to the tobacco industry go back to 2006, when she appeared in an ad opposing Proposition 86, the initiative that would have raised tobacco taxes by $2.60 a pack.

Her appearance came late in the campaign after the No on 86 campaign — bankrolled with $60 million by Philip Morris and R.J. Reynolds — had failed to land a doctor to make its pitch. According to news reports at the time, actor Americo Simonini, a Beverly Hills cardiologist, had been approached and was offered at least $10,000 if the initiative’s proponents could use his name and identify him as a physician. He declined.

That year, tobacco companies paid $160,000 to the consulting firm of Alice Huffman, president of the California NAACP, which went on to oppose the tobacco tax.

Porter lent her voice to industry groups at least once before 2006. In 2002, she took the side of the chemical industry against health advocates. She became a key voice in opposing an EPA-proposed regulation of perchlorate, a water pollutant that environmentalists say has harmful effects on infants and children.

At the time, Porter (then La Donna White), acting as president of an African-American doctors group, argued that the proposal would divert funds from “real health issues” affecting blacks and “scare the public.” She later repeated her argument in a column and in a news release produced by a lobbyist for perchlorate users, the Council on Water Quality.

Porter has been a practicing family physician since 1998 after graduating from UC Davis Medical School two years earlier. According to the Medical Board of California, she has had no malpractice lawsuits or other actions taken against her as a physician.

But her personal finances were troublesome from the time she began her practice 14 years ago, when she filed for her first bankruptcy. By 2008, her income, $167,000 in 2007 and $193,000 the previous year, had plummeted to $60,000. She’d received unemployment checks for nine months, according to the bankruptcy documents, and was unable to make payments on her house and office space she’d bought in Elk Grove.

Porter’s Wilton home, south of Elk Grove in the Ranch Equestrian Estates, is a sprawling, 4,850-square-foot, five-bedroom, three-and-a-half-bath house. She bought it in 2006 for $1.18 million but its value has plummeted by more than half.

Staff researcher Diana Stickler contributed to this report.


Family physician: San Joaquin General Hospital near Stockton

Why you know her: TV and radio spots opposing Proposition 29, the tobacco tax.

Facebook friends: 508 friends, including Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson

Likes: She lists the apocalyptic “Left Behind” series as among her favorite readings, gospel and jazz as her favorite music and “Hell’s Kitchen,” “Boston Legal” and “House” as her favorite TV programs.

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